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A nasty showdown is brewing between bicycles and trees over a proposed Class I bike path 14 feet wide and physically separated from traffic along a stretch of Modoc Road that runs from the freeway underpass at La Cumbre Road to the Obern bike path — also a Class I trail — which connects riders all the way to UCSB. Neighborhood activists are up in arms over the plan, claiming it will consume a sizable chunk of the 25-acre Modoc Road Preserve, set aside in 1999 for what they believed was perpetuity. 

“Here we are 23 years later, fighting to preserve the preserve we thought was already preserved,” neighborhood activist Warren Thomas objected.

The bike path would consume about an acre of the preserve, mostly on land that runs alongside Modoc Road but that in some places veers deeper into the preserve, home to three species of hawks, hooded orioles, coyotes, bobcats, skunks, possum, and racoons and a roosting spot for a flotilla of neighborhood dog walkers. Critics of the plan say the new bike path — which would be safer and more inviting and reassuring to strollers, equestrians, and more leisurely moving cyclists — would require the elimination of 63 trees, mostly canary palms and eucalyptus trees. Thomas described the area marked for tree removal as “a kill zone and a wasteland.” Trees slated for elimination have already been marked with large white dots. 

Fourteen of the trees on the list are oaks; they would be replaced with by other oaks, but start-up trees, not large, mature specimens. Thomas dismissed these as “knee-high bushes,” objecting that they would not come close to replacing the shade canopy lost during his lifetime. 

The palms and eucalyptus — being non-native and invasive — are not currently slated for replacement.

This new bike lane has been on various regional bicycle master plans since 2015; it’s needed to fill in a gap for a much-expanded network of Class I paths that would be able to carry riders from UCSB along Modoc Road to Las Positas Road and over to Cliff Drive. Currently, a Class II bike path runs along that stretch of Modoc Road. State transportation dollars will fund $5.3 million of the $7 million the project will reportedly cost. 

County Public Works administrator Chris Sneddon said that the 63 figure for the number of targeted trees was not accurate. “That’s the maximum that would be removed,” he said. “We are refining the design to reduce that number significantly.” 

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He said that number could be reduced further still. Several of the non-native and invasive trees slated for removal are not necessary to take down to make way for a new path. They would be removed simply because of their non-native status. If those are allowed to remain, the casualty count, Sneddon explained, could be even lower.

By locating parts of the new bike lane in the preserve, Sneddon stated, the hope was to avoid decimating all the trees running right along Modoc Road. If the preserve is off-limits, he said, the visual impact to people on the road would be far more dramatic.

Sneddon took exception to charges that he and his department are trying to ram this project through the county supervisors sometime in August. He said the supervisors are scheduled to vote on the proposal in mid-September. 

Thomas objected that not enough affected neighbors were properly notified of the plans and that many of his fellow activists found out only by accident. The land-use consulting company that prepared the draft environmental report sent out notices to the 110 households located within 200 feet of the proposed trail. But with a return address from the Ventura-based Padre Consulting, Thomas said, many recipients dismissed the notification as junk mail. 

The land in question — the Modoc Preserve — is owned by the La Cumbre Mutual Water Company and is managed by the Land Trust of Santa Barbara County. While such a trail might be deemed compatible with the Land Trust’s mission, the Land Trust has taken no official action yet nor has it seen a final draft of the plans. Neither has the water company. 

Sneddon said the September vote is only over the adequacy of the mitigated negative declaration for the environmental report. “We’re not at the 11th hour and 59th minute here,” he stressed. “There’s still plenty of time for people to engage with the process. We’re still making refinements. It’s a good time for people to get involved.” 

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